Call me easy. A visit to the Ritz-Carlton, Naples—heck, five minutes anticipating a visit to the Ritz—and I am miraculously cured of whatever ails me. Mecca’s Holy Well of Zamzam must contain great power, and the cathedral at Chartres could inspire awe in an atheist. But a pilgrimage to 280 Vanderbilt Beach Road requires much less in the way of travel time, and it will reaffirm your belief in the divine. Now that I have sampled the world-class cuisine and service at the recently updated Artisans, I have the zeal of a new convert.
"Don’t tell me," said my husband, Tom. "I need to wear a suit." Despite the fact that he looks better in glad rags than any man alive, it takes a bit of coaxing to get Tom to trade his Ramones T-shirt for his Brooks Brothers dinner jacket.
"It’s for a very good cause," I promised. Tom gave me a grateful look as a series of besuited men and women flocked to us at the restaurant’s entrance. You will gasp when you first take in the dining room, a space that could easily have been plucked from Versailles, with rich floral displays, richly upholstered furniture and drapery in pinks, greens and golds, elaborate ceiling art and dramatic oil portraits.
Our server, Anthony Soulia, looked every bit as dapper as his surroundings in a dark, pin-striped extravaganza. We assumed he was the restaurant’s general manager until maître d’hôtel James Teague introduced himself to us. When you visit—and everyone should at least once, to know once and for all that there is a benevolent God—force James to tell you the story of his amazing career trajectory. This "Table Titan" began his restaurant career 33 years ago at a Red Lobster.
In the fall of 2006, Artisans rolled out a new "dining concept." Chef de cuisine Oscar Gonzalez offers the following eight "personal favorites," all proteins: lobster, shellfish, turbot, poultry, tuna, winter (vegetarian options), sea bass and beef. You will note the aptness of Artisans’ tagline: "Great regional seafood with style." Each favorite can be made three different ways and in two portion sizes: half or full. Thus, you may choose among "warm Maine lobster, fresh green salad" ($20 half/$40 full); "spiny lobster ravioli, semidried tomatoes, fresh peas" ($20/$40); and "grilled Maine lobster, fava beans and pancetta" ($21/$42).
In order to range freely over a menu that will kick your salivary glands into overdrive, we recommend that you follow our lead and stay with half orders, and lots of them. This is nouvelle cuisine: small, perfect dishes. If you’re famished, ignore us and go for the full-sized gusto.
The sommelier brought us a very fine half bottle of red wine, the Chateauneuf du Pape, 2004 Domaine du Dieux Telegraphe ($69). A word to the frugal: Artisans offers 1,600 wines, but the prices suggest that it would be best to have a trust fund, an expense account or a very special occasion before you sample them. We savored ours with a phenomenal amuse-bouche of Walleye tartar in a citrus sauce, and took in the stylings of guitarist Mike Blasucci.
"This is going to be so good," I murmured, giving Tom’s knee a squeeze under the table.
"I know," he said. "You can just tell."
After much deliberation, we settled on the warm Maine lobster salad. The lobster meat, served in a light but flavorful beurre blanc, was as sweet and delectable as any I have ever tasted, and I spent the first 26 summers of my life on Cape Cod. Next came the "sea bass tartar, Gulf shore prawns, black Osetra caviar" ($19/$36). Best sea bass, prawns and caviar we’ve ever eaten. In fact, this review is threatening to become incredibly tedious. Since we’re liable to run out of superlatives at any moment, we’ll give it to you another way.
All of the following dishes turned out to be the very best incarnations of these raw ingredients that we have ever tasted, appealing to both eye and palate:
"Four Story Hill young chicken, turnip puree, saba sauce" ($20/$38)
"Grilled tuna, Florida’s sweet shrimp, garlic and parsley sauce" ($22/$44)
"Winter black truffle risotto, aged parmigiano" ($32/$48)
"Michima Farm ribeye, Artisans potato, perigourdine sauce" ($26/$40)
Chocolate mousse soft caramel center, chocolate ice cream, caramel cognac sauce" ($12)
"Pineapple tapioca, coconut crème brûleé, coconut sorbet" ($14)
All of the beef on the menu is American-raised Kobe beef, and its American provenance is the only minor concession to budget that we could locate.
"We heard a former Ritz chef say that his UPS bill alone came to $100,000 one year. Is that right?" Tom asked James.
"Absolutely," he confirmed. "Artisans exercises zero restraint when it comes to food cost." Thus, our black truffles probably arrived that very day from France, perhaps from a spot not far from Chartres.
In a world where the term "luxury" gets applied to everything from pantyhose to rubber tires, the Ritz-Carlton still knows how to furnish the real deal. All we can say, with satisfaction and gratitude, is a profound Amen.
Artisans at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples, 280 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Naples; (239) 598-3300, www.ritzcarlton.com. Open November through May, dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Valet and self parking. Credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible.
The Perfect Dinner-and-a-Movie Choice
As of Jan.16, when Pagelli’s Cucina first opened at the Coconut Point mall in Estero, there is a place to get a tasty supper at a reasonable price in a warm atmosphere after a long day’s hunting and gathering. A Sicilian family-run Italian restaurant that is poised to become a corporate franchise, Pagelli’s is named for matriarch Vincenza Pagelli. When we visited, Vincenza’s three grandsons, restaurant owners Vince, Joe and Tony Cangialosi, were dashing around the open kitchen in backward Kangol berets, cooking for a large crowd. The ambiance is "rustic Tuscan"—warm reds and browns, a wood-fired brick oven and waterfront dining.
Pagelli’s offers several dishes in all of the following categories: poco piatto, insalata and zuppa, from our grill, pasta specialties, Nonna Pagelli’s favorites and brick oven pizza. There are also bambini options and dolce.
Before our stomachs could start to grumble, server Sarah Richardson, a native of Buffalo, brought us two glasses of Trinity Oaks wine, the pinot noir and the cabernet sauvignon (both $7 glass/$26 bottle), and set four appetizers before us. First came the cozze, a very rich dish of mussels in a lemon butter sauce ($10.50), and the portobello stuffed with lobster and jumbo lump crabmeat, a nice, cheesy blend of mild flavors with a side salad ($8.90). Then the "homemade and hearty" minestrone soup ($4.90) lived up to its description, as did the Caesar salad, with big chunks of shaved parm ($4.90).
For the main event, Tom and I sampled the chicken parmigiano ($14) and the pizza bianco ($10.90), both of which were simple, tasty, pleasing and large enough to share. Despite our full bellies, it seemed wrong to ignore the dolce, since all are made in house. We finished with the cannoli ($5), a tart delight drizzled with chocolate.
Pagelli’s strives to "fill your plate with the warmth from our hearts." It’s the perfect dinner-and-a-movie choice for Coconut Point. We hope it manages to retain the good family flavors.
Pagelli’s Cucina at Coconut Point, 8017 Plaza Del Lago, Suite 101, Estero; (239) 226-4242, www.pagellis.com. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 11 p.m. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible.